Excellence in teaching political science is essential to the discipline. This interview series highlights campus teaching award winners who have been recognized by the American Political Science Association (APSA) for their achievements. If you or a colleague has won a campus teaching award in the 2015-16 academic year, please share your story with us! At the 2016 APSA Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, every meeting attendee who has won a campus teaching award will be recognized at a reception honoring teaching. Learn more about the campus teaching award recognition program here.
Alison Dana Howard received her M.A. degree in Political Science from the University of Oklahoma and she currently teaches courses on American Government, the Presidency, Congress, Politics and Media, and Campaigns and Elections at Dominican University of California. Her research focuses on presidential rhetoric specifically the State of the Union Address, political communication, pedagogy, as well as art, politics, and culture. She has published articles in PS: Political Science and Politics, American Behavioral Science, Journal of Political Science Education, Social Science Quarterly, and Perspectives on Political Science. In 2015, she was recognized as the Campus-wide Teacher of the Year by Dominican University of California.
What’s your teaching background? What was your first teaching experience like?
Howard: I have had a variety of teaching experiences over the years at both the high school and college levels (community colleges and 4 year colleges). My first teaching experience was as a student teacher as part of my teaching credential at Booker T. Washington High School in Pensacola, FL. I taught US Government, US History, and Geography. It was from this experience that I realized how much I enjoyed spending my days thinking and talking about subjects that interested me and it was then that I decided to go to graduate school in Political Science.
I followed the typical grad student route and I started out as a TA for a large Intro to American Government class for a semester and then had my own sections. I felt well prepared to teach as a graduate student because of my student teaching experience and the wonderful preparation Dr. David Ray at the University of Oklahoma provided for his TAs, but it was still very nerve-wracking. Being in front of a group of people who have varying levels of expectations and interests means anything can happen and no matter how well prepared I thought I was there was always something that could come up and throw me off my game! I learned early on that it is ok to not know the answer to something and simply say—“good question…I will get back to you on that.” I had the usual array of issues arise in my first semester of teaching: students being unhappy about their grades on papers and exams, a few plagiarism and cheating incidents, and various minor. Overall it was a very positive experience and certainly reinforced my decision to continue teaching.
How would you describe your teaching style or philosophy?
Howard: My teaching philosophy is inspired by Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning and is probably better described as a learning philosophy rather than a teaching philosophy. Bloom outlined six cognitive domains that are necessary in the proficiency and mastery of new concepts and ideas. Like Bloom, I strongly believe that students need to have a clear grasp of the subject matter at hand and it is only from this foundational knowledge that students will be able to apply what they have learned to a variety of different experiences both inside and outside of the classroom.
When I am developing a course, whether it is a new course, or one I have taught in the past, I always begin by asking “what am I trying to achieve?” and “how am I going to achieve it?” Following Bloom, I structure my courses and assignments with the goal of having students develop knowledge, analytical skills, and the ability to synthesize and apply what they are learning to other aspects of the course and to new experiences outside of the classroom. Most importantly, I want students to be inquisitive so I encourage them to take some risks with their learning, explore new ideas, and challenge themselves.
My teaching style is to be supportive and approachable. One thing that helps with this is that I never assume that everyone understands everything we have covered. Even if no one asks a question I often find myself saying—“well let’s just review this one more time or let’s look at this from a different perspective.” I want students to know that some concepts and ideas really do need additional time to grasp—and that no one should be expected to master something right away. If I do this enough times in the beginning of the semester students eventually start asking questions and contributing more to class discussions.
Do you have favorite materials or courses to teach?
Howard: The Presidency is my favorite course to teach because it aligns so closely with my main area of research. However, I also really enjoy teaching the Introduction to American Politics course. It is in this course where most students may be encountering “political science” for the first time and it is so encouraging to watch some students begin to think about their role in the political process, how important it is to understand their government, and that they really can do something to improve their lives and the lives of their families and friends if they just know even a little bit about how our political system works.
I use a variety of approaches to teach my classes that provide opportunities for students to build on their knowledge and reflect on what they have been learning. I have used current events in a variety of ways over the years, most recently with “news roundtable” sessions at the beginning of class. Students are generally assigned different news outlets to follow and we open each class with an update about news involving the course material. Using current events, either as paper assignments, or as in class reports, has proven to be beneficial in helping students synthesize and apply the course material to their lives in a meaningful way.
I have also used simulations in a number of my courses. This has certainly not been without many challenges, however, simulations are a great tool for getting students to apply and integrate course content. They force students into situations where they have to “make connections” between concepts, practice problem solving, work collaboratively, improve their written and oral communication, and internalize the learning process because of high levels of personal accountability. Additionally, simulations have improved students’ abilities to conduct research, evaluate sources, and analyze information.
Another favorite assignment I have is the Election Day Exit Poll where students have a chance to engage with the community, apply what they have been learning, and practice a variety of essential communication and analytical skills. The best part of this assignment is how positive their interactions have been with the community. People are genuinely interested in what the students are doing. They have asked to see the results and have commented about how nice it is to see young people involved in the electoral process. These positive interactions have really helped my students realize that there is value in what they are studying.
What has been your most effective tool for engaging students in the classroom?
Howard: I am always on the look-out for some creative approach for engaging students and have read about a number of interesting ideas that faculty use in their classes. I have tried using music, movies, television shows, and in-class polling devices to engage students.
I honestly believe, however, that it is my enthusiasm for the subject matter I teach that engages my students. Since I know most of my students will not become political scientists, I try to reinforce the idea that regardless of their major or career path they have the necessary tools to be good consumers of political information, understand how government works and can positively contribute to the decision making process if they choose to participate. Knowing that they can “make a difference” is empowering and engaging.
Most recently, I have read a few articles that highlighted the importance of taking the time to explain to students why we choose particular books or assignments, how these materials connect to the themes of the course, what skills we want them to develop, and what they should be trying to do with the assignment beyond simply completing it. As a result, I have been taking the time to be more deliberate about explaining my rationale for how I design my courses and why I have selected certain assignments. I think this approach has helped students engage more with my courses because they understand why they are being asked to do certain things and how the coursework will help them to develop and hone essential skills that are needed for the workplace, graduate school, or life in general.
Did you have any classroom experiences as a student that influenced how you teach now?
Yes, as an undergraduate student at UCLA I took a US Foreign Policy class with Dr. Deborah Larson and I remember that every day she had an outline on the board. This made the course so accessible and easy to follow. It also provided many opportunities to draw connections between concepts and theories especially for students who were new to the material. At the time I really didn’t think I would be teaching Political Science classes, but here I am and one of the things I do for every class is put an outline on the board for that day’s material. It was my experience in her class that has shaped at least a little bit of how I approach teaching.